Friday, October 18, 2013

Code Name Heartbreak (Which is not a paperback romance novel, we promise.)

You may remember last month when we mentioned that our book club's September pick was going to be Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, and that we would probably work on some sort of analyze-and-chat post after we finished the book so we could all collectively join in the book club fun. Well friends, that time has come. The book has been read, the feels have been felt, and we are ready to DISCUSS!

Three covers. Take your pick!


Or at least we were. And by we, we definitely mean just Susan, who REJECTED reading this book for our book club on the grounds that it would be TOO SAD (based on pretty much every review that said it was brilliant but heartbreaking). My God, we tried to avoid the waterfall of emotions we knew this book would bring, but we just couldn’t. Our book club picks of late were Not Living Up to Our Expectations, to say the very least. So it seemed petty to continue to avoid a book that made at least 15 Best Books lists in the last year just because we were gormless.

And now our earlier compunctions just seem SO EMBARRASSING. This book is wonderful in basically every way possible, and you have no excuse not to read it. (Okay, maybe one excuse, but it’s pretty lame. We assume it could be possible that everyone else in your town has realized this is a book that should be read and loved, and because of that all the copies in your library may be unavailable. But that’s a weak excuse; pony up the money to buy a copy for yourself. You’ll want to reread it. And then do research and then reread it again.)

We’re just floored. We are utterly and completely floored. WE LOVED SO MUCH OF THIS. Writing voice, narrative structure, characters, emotions, plot. Everything, actually.

Here’s the gist for those of you who are meeting Code Name Verity for the first time: Our narrator is Verity, a British Special Operations Executive who is confessing the details of her mission in Occupied France and her knowledge of airfields and planes to avoid an excruciating death at the hands of her Gestapo captors. It’s all a little disorienting because Verity writes about her feelings towards her collaboration deal, then starts telling the story from the point of view of her best friend, Maddie, whose papers got switched with hers when they flew into France weeks earlier. There are all sorts of twists and turns because Verity is very clever and Maddie is very skilled, but you know all along that it’s leading to the plane crash that left Verity in France, and the consequences of her capture by the Gestapo. We WILL NOT SAY MORE than that until after the jump.

In the spirit of the memorable lists that Maddie and Verity make of their top ten fears, we’ll make a list of the top ten things we want to tell you, and we’ll jump when the information is CLASSIFIED for people who have already read the book.

  1. Verity and Maddie as characters. Both are extremely talented and courageous.
  2. It’s a downer plot but not a downer book. Verity’s narration is funny at times, and almost always upbeat in spite of her being held in a secret Gestapo prison.
  3. Verity’s brother Jamie. He makes eggs for children and we basically fall in love.
  4. The structure of the novel is so inherently unreliable, but her friendship with Maddie is so lovely that you want the narration to have all been reliable, so you end up questioning EVERYTHING while hoping against hope that things are the way you want them to be.
  5. The Nazis are as well developed as the Allies we meet. It is clear that they are performing evil deeds, but it also comes across that their main flaw is their cowardice rather than an innate evil. Unlike in other novels, the Nazi characters have more motive (and internal conflict) than sadism.
  6. Maybe this is part of no. 5, but we can’t fully hate SS-Hauptsturmf├╝hrer Amadeus von Linden.
  7. Did we mention how much we love Maddie and Verity’s best friendship?
  8. The Peter Pan allusions start on page 5 and carry through to the end, but the exact parallels of characters change.
  9. Everything carries through to the end, and it’s the symmetry and resolution that create the biggest emotional moments.
  10. We have book-overs. Or book hangovers. Whatever the word is to describe that we are having trouble reading other books because we can’t let go of this one.

Now we will jump, to leave in unspoiled condition those who haven't read the book yet and wish to remain spoiler-free. If you find yourself in this category, we leave you with the exhortation of GO READ THIS BOOK, and bid you a fond goodnight. For those who have read the book or really don't care about being spoiled (you know who you are...), click onward!


Even after a good long discussion with the rest of our book club, we found we still had plenty to say about the book. If we were truly able to keep up the voice of the novel the whole way through this post, we’d subtly change it now to reflect our second narrator, Maddie.

Susan: THE ENDING. And how cool Maddie is when we find out that she’s been hiding out in France.
Alyssa: So if you are filling in for Verity and I am Maddie, I must start being horribly self-deprecating. My’s no good! But I have this great pen! I can write on an airplane! (I joke. I really loved this book. I am not truly making fun of it. Maddie is awesome. If I ever have a child, its name might be Verity Maddie _______.)

After that initial gush of booklove, we moved speedily into more upsetting territory:

Susan: And we also have to talk about how sad we get when we think of Maddie as she shoots Verity.
Alyssa: No, that was the worst! That was the part that made me burst into spontaneous tears! The whole “Kiss me, Hardy!” bit and then she shoots her!!! GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH ...I kept trying to think of ways for Verity to not truly be dead, but every time I thought I had one I was like...nope, that won’t work.
Susan: ME TOO. I was so certain that SS-Hauptsturmf├╝hrer would grow a spine and keep her from being sent out of the prison, and that they’d manage to rescue her in Operation Verity.
Alyssa: And then I remembered that it was a well-researched book about WWII and realized she probably wasn’t coming back.
Susan: This is what happens when we read too much fantasy. THEY CAN ALWAYS COME BACK. ...except in well-researched novels that use violence realistically. Waaaaaah. But my saddest moment was when Jamie put his hand on Maddie’s shoulder in the plane. They both missed Julie so much--
Alyssa: HE UNDERSTOOOOOOOOOOOOD ::sobs:: Very subtle. Well-played, author.
Susan: YES. What I was going to say. And he won’t hold his sister’s death against her. LOVE. Mature and generous love. ::more sobs::

We then pondered the marketing of this book, dark scenes (both actual and theoretical), big words, and confusion ensuing in their wake:

Alyssa: Sometimes I wonder if they’ll make another “grown-up” edition of this book to sell in the not-YA part of bookstores...I feel the characters are old enough to fit in there, as is the story.

Susan: I was a little surprised to see how old the characters were, considering it was shelved as YA. (Surprised in a good way.)

Alyssa: That was actually something I was wondering about going into the book--how realistic could a book about 16 year old spies (my arbitrary YA age) in WWII actually be? (Or maybe there were teenage spies! I really don’t know.) So I was quite pleased to see that they were in their 20s.

Susan: I suspect the only thing that kept this from landing on an adult shelf was Elizabeth Wein’s decision not to show bedroom or rape scenes.

Alyssa: But they were alluded to? Or the possibility of them was alluded to, rather. And there was some other pretty graphic stuff...needles in breasts of female spies? Yeesh.

Susan: Yeah, they were definitely alluded to. But I think it would have been an automatic adult shelving if Thibaut had raped Verity, and Verity had described the thing in intimate detail. Of course that would have ruined the verisimilitude (WORD OF THE DAY!) of her writing the first half of the book for her Nazi captors…

Alyssa: Wait, so you’re saying Thibaut did rape her?!

Susan: No!! I’m saying that if he HAD (and it seemed like it would have been a common enough practice based on everything else that was going on in that hell-hole), it would have been deemed too mature for YA.

Alyssa: Right, right, I’m with you there. I was just confused on the Thibaut-raping-Verity description ruining verisimilitude of her writing. Probably the big word just intimidated me.

Susan: Damn vocabulary building. I BLAME CROSSWORD PUZZLES.

Alyssa: Because if it had happened and she had described it, how would that wreck the truth-seeming of her writing? Because SS-Haupt-etc. would know about it if it happened.

Susan: I just don’t think that a young woman presenting herself as embarrassed about being questioned in her underwear would write graphic details about sexual abuse. Particularly not to strangers?

Alyssa: But she might if she was completely mind-screwed-up by torture? Who knows. None of this matters, since it wasn’t something that happened. Although there was one part where I thought SS-Haupt-etc. was going to go there.

Susan: I HAD THAT THOUGHT TOO AT ONE POINT! But I didn’t say it today because I think I didn’t want to drag SS-Haupt through the mud because I liked his love of literature.

Alyssa: Just because he loved literature doesn’t make him an okay person!

Susan: Very good point. But I wish it did! And I wish that people who wanted to talk about novels all turned out to be uninterested in killing spirited and smart spies! This all goes back to my realization while reading the book that I am much much more optimistic than I thought I was. I don’t fully believe a sad ending is coming, and I keep hoping that the torture-orderer will turn out to be an okay person! (I guess part of the book was seeing that in literally every other circumstance of his life, he WAS an okay person. It just happened that in the war, his crimes were so bad that they outweighed his otherwise good qualities.)

Alyssa: I started out that way, and I think I nursed some small hope throughout the book that it would surprise me and everything would turn out hunky-dory, but after finishing the Verity section I came to grips (or at least thought I did) with the fact that Verity probs wasn’t going to make it. I, however, did NOT see death at the hands of her best friend coming. As I read the book I kept thinking about the blurb on the back that called it “wrenching,” and I kept thinking to myself, “Okay, this is rough, but when does it get wrenching?” And then it did.

Susan: Yeah, who could have seen THAT coming? Up until the end of Part One, I was convinced the sad part of the book was going to be seeing the proof that MADDIE was dead. I was hoping she wasn’t, but I thought the heartbreak would be holding on to all that hope only to find out that it was true.

Alyssa: And then Maddie manages to convince herself and us that the story about Julie’s great aunt wasn’t really true, it was just a message to let her know they should blow up the hotel/prison with her inside, BUT THEN IT WAS TRUE. AND A MESSAGE.

Susan: ::tears::

Alyssa: And now I get “The Last Time I Saw Paris” stuck in my head all the time and want to wail, “NOOOOO!” whenever it does.

We could have probably continued in that vein for quite awhile longer, but with our hearts still bursting with love for Maddie, Verity, and co. we turned our attention to acquiring our October/November book club picks (more on that tomorrow). Hopefully this post has already convinced you, but just to reiterate: This book is fantastic and deserves ALL THE READERS. Please talk with us about it in the comments. In case you didn't realize, WE REALLY LIKE TO TALK ABOUT IT. Have you read it? What parts surprised you? When did you start crying? (That's right, it's a when, not an if!) Hit the comments and let us know!

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